Sharp has lined up a customer who is building a 5-megawatt power plant featuring Sharp's new amorphous silicon thin films.

Cleantech America has broken ground on the project, which is located in California's Central Valley town of Mendota. San Francisco-based Cleantech America plans to complete the project by the end of the year and sell electricity from the plant to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The power plant is the first publicly announced project for Sharp's thin-film business. Sharp has been seeking customers for its second-generation thin films, which use a layer of amorphous silicon and another layer of microcrystalline silicon to turn sunlight into electricity.

The Japanese company built a 160-megawatt factory last year, and its executives said last fall that shipment to the U.S. market would start this month.

Sharp is marketing the thin films mainly to developers of large commercial and utility projects. Its amorphous silicon thin films could convert 9 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity, an efficiency that is lower than the cadmium-telluride panels being produced by First Solar (10.9 percent).

Most of the solar panels on the market today use silicon and have efficiencies in the mid-teens. Sharp also makes silicon panels.

With lower efficiencies, thin films are typically better suited for large-scale installations than residential rooftops, where more efficient solar panels could produce more electricity without taking up a whole lot of space.

The size of Cleantech America's project is small compared with others that are under development in California, such as First Solar's 550-megawatt solar farm.

But Cleantech America's project would start production much sooner and help PG&E meet a state mandate that requires investor-owned utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

PG&E has signed many power purchase agreements with solar power plant developers. But the first one who delivered solar electricity to the utility was Sempra Generation, and that happened only earlier this year. That 10-megawatt project, featuring First Solar's solar panels, is in Nevada.